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  • IMPRESSIONS from a Cross-section


    Do you see the world breaking away from cotton and polyester any time soon? Are we going to see new fibres that are sustainable/circular as well as affordable?

    Cannot see the world breaking away from cotton & polyester
    Cotton has been under pressure due to anthropogenic activities, climate change, etc. On the other hand, polyester, a fossil fuel fibre, is known to cause oceanic pollution. Fibre2Fashion spoke to some fibre industry professionals to know the fate of these two fibres in the long run and whether new sustainable fibres replacing the former two will be more affordable.

    For many years—for cotton—it has been a question of sustainability. On the one hand it is a natural fibre, on the other hand it also needs a lot of chemicals for treatment. Cotton is not the most sustainable thing around, and you need land to grow it. If a huge piece of land is used to plant cotton, then you wouldn’t have that land for food. Second, the water? consumption of cotton is high. The alternative is polyester that results in a lot of microfibre pollution. But, that’s where I see a lot of innovations happening. At Heiq, we are developing a finishing that would coat polyester so that there is no more microfibre shedding. We do have one technology ready, but it doesn’t contribute much to the aesthetics of the fabric. The peeling process is same as that of polyester—first the fibre comes out, then it curves and peels off. We are able to stop the peel-off process, but the peeling is attached to the surface of the fabric. So, it doesn’t look good. It doesn’t pollute the water stream, but it doesn’t contribute to the aesthetics either. So, we are working on another solution that would enhance the aesthetic of the fabric.

    Looking at cotton, we have seen numerous organisations innovating with sustainable cotton, and production practices which fundamentally reduce the use of resources like water and solvents. Processes such as upcycling, recycling and blending with other sustainable fibres are also becoming more common. Whilst sustainable cotton still represents a small proportion of total cotton sales, we expect brands to continue innovating in this space to bolster the environmental credentials of cotton and clothing made from its fibres.

    In recent years, the affordability of polyester has enabled the striking growth of fast fashion with polyester now being found in over half of all textiles and contribute to an estimated 530 million tonnes of CO2, according to the 2021 Fossil Fashion Report.

    Consumers and the textiles industry are becoming concerned about the amount of microplastics emitted by polyester, and are moving towards “slow fashion” by purchasing less clothing designed to last longer. The use of sustainable fibres such as cellulose supports this trend with intrinsic qualities enhancing garment longevity. While the Tencel brand produces cellulosic fibres of botanic origin (Tencel lyocell and modal fibres), we are always working on developing new technologies to boost our sustainability credentials. Naturally, as consumer preferences for more sustainable alternatives continue to grow, we expect to see their accessibility increase through widespread availability across the industry.

    As consumers trend towards conscious fashion, becoming more aware of the origins of the textiles in their apparel, we do expect a drop in demand for less-sustainable textiles in the long term. Increasingly, brands are looking to viscose as a potential alternative to cotton because of its low water consumption, reduced pesticide use and higher cellulose yield productivity per hectare of land, and to polyester because of its renewable, biodegradable and compostable attributes.

    Furthermore, there have been breakthroughs in fibre production in recent years, despite challenges in achieving a commercial scale. However, more awareness and education are still required for consumers to become more conscious of detrimental consequences in how the world consumes fashion. Needless to say, the next few years is likely to see new applications of recycled textiles, and possibly new fibres being able to be produced with higher percentages of recycled content.

    We cannot see the world breaking away from cotton and polyester as they represent the most used fibres, but it’s interesting to highlight that nowadays many new branded sustainable fibres within those two fibre kinds have been launched, such as recycled polyesters, or the Greek Supreme Green Cotton saving 40 per cent of water. Indeed, we have noticed a strong push towards sustainable options, and we are ready to catch this opportunity thanks to our well-established responsibility profile.?

    On the other hand, cellulose fibres have a lot of potential. We believe that cellulose fibres can fulfil the current demand and expectation from the market. We are proud to offer premium performances while offering a circular cellulosic fibre that does not deplete forests as Bemberg is born from the transformation of cotton linters through a fully circular, transparent and entirely traceable process.

    Finally, the market nowadays is seeing interesting new eco/hi-tech launches that blend together responsibility and performances.

    You hit the nail on the head. In case of polyester, the quantities increased in the last couple of years by I don’t know how many times. There is not a single textile which perhaps had not been made or attempted to be made out of polyester—whether it is a t-shirt or cushion, be it good or bad. But the prime selling reason was always price. I am not saying all polyester products are bad, not at all. There are good polyester products, and they have their way. Look at which other fibres are pushed aside because of pricing. If you look at acrylic fibre, it used to be a synthetic wool and there used to be a market for that at some point in time. But for 10 years now there has been a constant decline because polyester has taken over its spot. So, unfortunately, we are losing a variety of textile products. We are such a price-driven society these days that everything needs to be a little cheaper and if you blend in a little polyester here, you can still bring down the price and still make a decent textile fabric. So, your assessment that are we caught in a trap is very valid.

    Increasing global demand for alternatives to fossil-based textiles and resource intensive cotton is driving innovation in the industry both up and downstream. Production processes for current manmade cellulosic fibres and especially new fibres already focus on closed loops reusing chemicals and water, and in the future recycling materials to a greater extent. There are many ongoing projects focused on developing sustainable production technologies for new fibres.

    I can’t imagine that the world will quickly move away from cotton and polyester. These fibres are too prevalent in the industry and in spite of all issues they undoubtedly have great properties, which is why they have conquered the industry. I am not aware of any single fibre technology in its current state of development that has the potential to replace today’s standard fibres. Until we have fully circular fashion, the only option for sustainability-conscious consumers is to buy fashion with labels (like Oeko-Tex, Bluesign,etc) and go for high-quality and durable products. Fridays for Future and the 1-dollar shirt that has to be disposed of after three washes don’t match.

    Cotton is such a staple that its ubiquity cannot be overlooked and will not be replaced in the near future. However, there are opportunities to improve on its impact and circularity. We’re looking into more efficient and effective ways of farming cotton with our innovators and see some exciting developments. We are working with innovators that are looking at non petrochemical-based polyesters. In particular, those that use waste feedstocks to make fibres or plastics (Mango Materials and Fullcycle). Or, in the natural fibres space those that use agri-waste as a feedstock.

    The two fibres in question alone make up for 76 per cent (51.5 per cent polyester and 24.1 per cent cotton) of the global fibre market in the fashion industry. It’s not likely that we will see them replaced in the near future, but sustainable alternatives are chipping away at their dominance, and development in sustainable solutions will decrease their impact. It’s also not about focusing purely on the fibres themselves but looking to drive innovation across the supply chain—this can come in the form of lower impact farming practices like Materra or by growing cotton in the lab. Or, by utilising waste feedstocks to make natural fibres and viscose, or through chemical recycling. However, the rest of the supply chain is equally important. We should be aiming to keep items in use for as long as possible through re-commerce and rental platforms. Then, when a product comes to the end of its use one should be able to recycle those materials back into new fibres. Digitalisation of the supply chain will also help reduce waste by improving the sampling and design process. Finally, overarching, enhanced traceability of all these fibres is crucial as shown by our viscose traceability project. Overall, the industry is focused on reducing carbon emissions throughout the supply chain and the above all help towards achieving that.

    At this point, we are exploring techniques to make production of existing fibres, including polyester, cleaner, more sustainable and circular rather than looking for entirely new resources for fibre. Saya is looking to collect plastic bottles for recycling before they end up in the ocean and to find additional sources of existing PET rather than extracting more fossil fuel from the earth. This change requires the industry to look at every step and component of the garment production process.

    We need to consider the entire lifecycle of a product, including the end of life for the product, initially at the conceptualisation stage itself.

    At Polygiene, we are all about prolonging the life of the product (mostly textiles) by giving it certain features (anti-odour, antibacterial, antiviral, etc) with good performance to enable a more sustainable lifestyle. We do not see the world breaking away in a big way from cotton or polyester; we rather believe that circularity will be the next step towards sustainability. This includes both remarketing of finished products which have been refurbished as well as recycled fibres. There will be new fibres coming from new sources like we have seen with hemp and bamboo, but we believe these will be more in addition to the existing fibres to support more sustainable production.

    We don’t necessarily need new fibres to solve the cotton/polyester dilemma. All our viscose fibres are made from renewable, not genetically modified wood pulp and are fully biodegradable—yet during our manufacturing process we can design them to precisely meet our customers’ demands. By combining sustainability with performance, we offer an alternative to crude oil based materials in many different applications while exceeding the performance levels of natural fibres in many aspects. At the same time, we observe a lot of promising approaches in the fields of alternative or recycled raw materials. There won’t be the one “saviour material” that will substitute all that polyester—there will be a diversity of fibres.

    Cotton and polyester are so widely used that I don’t think they will be going away very quickly. And, I don’t think they necessarily need to disappear. Every fibre has its unique properties and uses, and how a fibre is produced can have more impact on its sustainability credentials than just the fibre type. What I hope we do break away from as quickly as possible are unsustainable production processes, and the unnecessary use of virgin resources. We need to start making better use of the materials that are already in use to make sure they remain in circulation for as long as possible.

    And when a textile reaches the end of its useful life is when fibre regeneration technologies like ours are crucial. By keeping materials in circulation, we are preventing them from ending up as pollution in the air, water and soil, and at the same time reducing the pressure on natural resources, including arable land. So yes, I do see that we will see regenerated or circular fibres becoming more mainstream. From a sustainability perspective, I don’t think we have a choice. And while new technologies are initially always more expensive, when we shift to economies of scale in production, prices generally also fall. For any new textile fibre to make a real environmental impact, it needs to be adopted at scale—even the most sustainable fibre you can imagine will not make a big difference if it only serves a very limited niche market.

    It is hard to see people moving away from polyester and cotton. However, in the last few years, awareness is growing around other fibre options. A few years ago, consumers did not really pay attention to the fibres in the garments they wore. In the food industry, we have seen consumers start to look more closely at food ingredients and the same now is beginning to happen in the world of fashion where consumers want to know more about the fibres in the garments. Brands also are very aware that choosing more sustainable fibres plays an important role in creating a more sustainable fashion industry.

    Our goal at Eastman Naia is to make sustainable fashion accessible to all; sustainable fibres cannot be niche and reserved for only those who can afford it. If we want to make a measurable impact, we have to democratise sustainable fashion and make it mainstream—accessible and affordable. The objective of the full value chain has got to be focused on this.1

    Sustainability is probably the most discussed issue in the textiles industry today; so much that it has become a priority and is challenging all players in the supply chain. The textiles sector is experiencing a real turning point with important investments in the research and development of new solutions in the name of sustainability. MIC started long before this new trend: in 2008 MIC developed Bio-Cotton, biological cotton 100 per cent sewing thread obtained from biological cultivations (Bio-Cotton was the world’s first sewing thread to get GOTS certification). Furthermore, MIC developed GRS, a line of recycled polyester yarns obtained from postconsumer packaging materials, certified GRS 2019- 210 by ICEA, an agency that verifies the traceability of recycled raw materials and processing along the entire supply chain.

    What we are seeing has to do with consumers and brands digging deeper into their supply chains. A result of this is a potential renaissance of the all-natural fibres. With synthetic fibres one after another coming out as a “more sustainable” “eco-friendly” solution, people are starting to see through the greenwashing and realising that many of these “innovations” are still far from the performance and sustainability of their all natural counterparts. Perhaps it’s a cynicism caused by the pandemic, but people (consumers and brands) are looking closer at the big picture impact. Cotton is a great example. Without regenerative farming practices, organic cotton can be a tremendous burden on the planet. I think we are also seeing a return to the Occam’s razor principle where sometimes the best solution is the easiest one. When you look at those companies, brands, retailers affected most by COVID-19, it becomes clear that the pandemic is weeding out a lot of mediocrity. Those brands that either lacked authenticity or could not remain relevant have been hit the hardest. We feel a similar thing is happening with the massive amounts of fibres that are available.

    No, I do not (see that). Cotton has been used for thousands of years. Polyester—and I include nylon and spandex here—have moved to the head of the “valued” textiles because of their unique balance of textile properties, value and cost position. There have been many attempts to replace these textile fibres with greener ones, but in the end the balance of properties and value are just not there. Rather than starting with an existing “green” polymer and accepting compromised textile properties, the industry will focus on making these leading textile fibres greener. As an example, consumers love the stretch and recover that only spandex can bring; so, Hyosung has developed Creora bio-based spandex which replaces 30 per cent of petroleum-based raw materials with ones that are made from renewable corn. Not only does this yarn reduce greenhouse gas, but it also avoids extracting non-renewable petroleum-based resources from the earth.

    This article was first published in the March 2021 edition of the print magazine.

    Published on: 25/05/2021

    DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed in this column are solely of the interviewee, and they do not reflect in any way the opinion of Fibre2Fashion.com.

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